Open source software for writers

ooo-main-logo-col_150px

Ever try one of an open-source software for screenplays and other writing needs?  I recently decided to try Open Office (got sick of my half-a-decade old Word for Macs) and have really come to enjoy it.  It’s extremely seamless, particularly for open source software, which can be buggy, problematic and/or support free. And though I haven’t tried to translate any of OO docs back into Word — which of course I’ll soon have to do, because the rest of the world uses Word — I feel like I’m in good hands …

Something about Word was grating on me — whether it was the old school design, the irritating little computer help guy who would come up at the most inopportune times, or the bugs (the program would crash all the time, and even though I save like a madman, I would still lose work from time to time … )  All in all, I love how Open Office works for me so far.

celtxlogoCeltx is another open-source software package, this time for screenplays and even storyboarding and the like.  I’m a big fan of Final Draft, and it seems to take care of all my screenwriting needs.  But Celtx is interesting in how it allows you to create several other sorts of projects:  a play, a comic book, a commercial A/V project.  As a screenwriter, I haven’t really needed any of these other aspects of the software, but the scriptwriting code seems pretty robust.  It’s got essentially the same features that Final Draft does, but without the $250 pricetag.  At that cost, it’s definitely worth looking into …

Right now the landscape for lots of digital things are changing, and the same can be said for free software.  Get productive.

Best Film of the Decade

synecdoche_new_york_posterJust a quick note to say once again, Roger Ebert’s got it right :  Synechdoche, New York is the best film of the decade.

Challenging, funny, dramatic, sad, beautiful — Synecdoche is all those things, and does what it does so well that no recent movie has come close to its level of complexity and scope.  It’s a testament to how great the film is that few people can really agree on its central message.  Ebert’s take is sort of close to my own, but that’s not saying much because, almost like good Harold Pinter, the themes and ideas overlap and intertwine and have a gem-like quality — there are many things happening simultaneously, and none of them are true, just as all of them are true.  There are patterns, but no certainties.

Anyway, please go check it out.

Lapses of logic in District 9

district9hero_806x453First of all, don’t get me wrong:  I loved District 9.  It’s always terrific to see a new voice in filmmaking burst out in such a robust manner.

But among all the glowing reviews, there were a few that echoed my own sentiments — that the film was kept from greatness by several truly shoddy lapses in logic.

Okay, more than several.  There were a lot of logic problems.

I’m reminded of the great speculative writer Harlan Ellison, who criticized Star Wars when it came out for its shoddy logic.  Not even mentioning its lamely roaring spaceships (in space, of course, no sound is emitted), he went straight for the cantina scene.  He was shocked that none of the aliens, so to speak, needed any help surviving in Tatooine’s arid atmosphere.  He posited that at least some of the creatures would have respirators, or bowls of water, or some sort of technological help to weather the planet’s unusually dry locale.  Instead they all party as if they evolved there.

The same things occur to me regarding District 9, but even more so, because the movie wants to cling so closely to the alternate reality it creates.

A famous screenwriting rule is that your audience will accept one — one — leap of faith.  After that, all should be realistic.  For instance, take Spiderman — Peter Parker’s got superpowers.  But beyond that, all drama and action follows the rules of its own system.

District 9 does not follow the rules of its own system.

Let’s take the opening:  If an alien ship arrived suddenly, we probably wouldn’t send foot soldiers into the muck and goo found on it.  There’d no doubt be microbes and little germy things that could potentially wipe out our race; we would proceed with extreme microbiological caution.  Also, an advanced race — probably ancient and wise beyond our understanding — end up living in hovels, bullied by our limited technology and combustion engines?  Nah.  The same large, lumbering, super-strong, super-smart, potentially violent aliens being evicted by a small man with a clipboard?  I don’t buy it.  Later, the man sprays himself in the face with an alien goo, and he brushes it off and continues to do his job, even after vomiting?  Not working for me.  The same fellow, leaking black blood from his nose, goes home to a surprise party and doesn’t excuse himself and get to a clinic?  Come on.  And again, this advanced civilization craves catfood?   What to say about that — it’s just nutty.  And this is just in the first half-hour.

I could go on. Like I said, I really liked the movie and what it’s trying to do.  But District 9 wants to be a ‘realistic’ movie so much that it violated its own rules.  A lazy fantasy may have been able to get away with some of the lapses, but not this film.  It aspired to greatness — to have characters (human and otherwise) acting as living, breathing people.  With a bar set that high, it needed to rise to its own level of ambition.

Instead, the writing and the execution was — I’ll just say it — a little shoddy.  To be a truly great movie, the writer/director Neil Blomkamp would have needed to have a Kubrickian attention to detail, to follow through on the movie’s own promises.

I applaud District 9‘s attempt at making an original, fully-realized science fiction masterpiece.  But I’m sorry to say it didn’t happen that way.

Shooting @ Moog Music

Last fall, I was asked to direct a series of videos for Moog Music and Music Allies, both based here in Asheville.  Great fun.  Essentially, the bands were coming through town and would stop by Moog Music’s studios and play with the very cool vintage-styled instruments.  The finished videos can be seen at Paste magazine.

Amanda Palmer — she rocks, simple as that.  More creative and more fun than I expected, and a terrific bandleader, besides.  The fact that she’s in a relationship with Neil Gaiman still freaks me out.

Amanda1

Medeski, Martin and Wood.  They also rock.  Some of their improvs are jawdropping.  Nice guys, too.  The drummer was very interested in filmmaking and picked my brain about HD.

MM&W1

Showing Mr. Medeski how to form a C chord.  Poor guy just couldn’t get it.

paul-@-keyboards1

Moe.  I wasn’t expecting to like these guys, but I did.  Super nice, too.

Moe1

Yo La Tengo.  One of the greatest indie bands of all time.

YLT1

The White Rabbits.  Young and very talented.  Not my favorite kind of music, but I was definitely impressed.

White-Rabbits1

Matisyahu. This one directed by the great Rod Murphy.  Kinda sleepy, though.

Matisyahu1

Rod Murphy and I worked on several of these together until he took over full time.  Rod’s also an amazing musician.  Check out his fantastic movie Being the Diablo.

Rod

Xavier Rudd. Very interesting guy, sort of like an Australian Jack Johnson.

Xavier1

The creative work’s done. Now what?

As a filmmaker and writer-dude, Ive recently finished projects that I worked my heart out to complete, then found myself saying, ˜Okay, what’s next?’  Then I found two books to be of such special use in that area that I’ve actually had to slow down to read them, to savor them in small, bite-sized chunks, so I could digest them properly and hold their information close to my over-burdened brain. I thought I’d share them with you, and I hope that you find them as useful as I did.

GoreThe first is Chris Gore’s The Essential Companion for Filmmakers and Festival Goers.  Gore, of course, is famously known for creating the venerable Film Threat magazine, one of those rags which no one seems to read anymore, but one held dear as perhaps the pinnacle of grassroots movie-going opinion-making (okay, it’s either Film Threat, or Harry Knowles’ Ain’t It Cool News).  But as far as film festivals go, Gore has been there, done that hundreds of times.  Nobody knows the festival circuit like he does.  His book has pretty much all you need to know about festivals, strategies to get in, and how to succeed without really trying.  Or, rather, without killing yourself while you try.

He’s got tips for premiering, tips for travel, parties, the domestic big ten, the international big ten, interviews with notable veterans, and so on.  If your movie’s just finished and about to hit the festival circuit, read Gore’s book. It’ll make life much easier for you.  You might even get a deal due to his advice.  Trust me, it works.

There are two things, however, I don’t like about the book:  The first is that his usual database of film festivals far and near are not included in this edition; instead, Gore created a website (ultimatefilmfest.com) which purports to have all the info you’ll ever need about festivals.  Instead, I found the site to be problematic and buggy, a little too light on info, and not as helpful as the past edition’s listing and commentary on the festivals themselves.  Perhaps it’ll get beefed up in the future.

The other thing I found problematic was Gore’s complete refusal to mention withoutabox.com, a fairly useful site that helps filmmakers batch their efforts in submitting to festivals, making it easier to go far and wide with their movies without having to re-invent the wheel each time.  Not sure why Gore doesn’t want to acknowledge a fellow festival-soldiering tool, but that’s his choice.

Otherwise, the book is spot on.

booklifeBooklife, by the fantasy author Jeff VanderMeer, is an essential read regarding how to be a productive public artist in the 21st Century.  Not how to write, mind you —  there’re plenty of books on that topic — but how to approach the treacherous terrain of self-employment as an artist in this digital day and age.  Included are how to market yourself, how to maximize your relationships with agents and publicists, and even how to schedule your day for maximum productivity.  It’s a little like Tony Robbins for writers, without all the fired-up histrionics.

VanderMeer is particularly good at giving his very sane perspective on things — how to avoid pitfalls that other, lesser disciplined writers often fall into, like addiction, excessive shyness and egoism, and even the proper way to deal with fans.  I’ve never read his fiction, but if its anything like Booklife, it’ll be well-written, clear as a bell, and incredibly perspicacious.  I found his thoughts on starting a career and dealing with The Industry particularly helpful.  (In my case, I’ve found that the publishing and film industries have a lot in common.)

VanderMeer is also particularly good at teaching how to self-promote and get the best version of yourself out into that huge swamp of opportunity known as the internets — whether that’s Facebook, blogs (cough) or more traditional PR. If you’ve got a good book on your hands and you don’t know what to do next, read Booklife.  Even though I’m a writer, I do identify more as a filmmaker, and I  found the info to be extremely useful.

Horror Movie After Effects

grudge-event-frontRemember when we were kids, and life used to scare the pants off us?  Remember being so afraid of the dark, so terrified of that long walk through the trees in the dusk?  I had a childhood friend who, after visiting us, would run home across the yards, terrified that ghosts were closing in behind him. The fact that we would yell and describe in detail the demons chasing him, of course, made him run all that much faster.

But then we grew up, and learned the dark was just that stuff that took over when we turned out the lights.  As we got older, things seemed to lose their mystery, and their menace, too.  Frankly, a home foreclosure at this point may be scarier than a home intruder.

Well, okay, maybe not.  But I make movies, and I’m soon to make a horror film (The Mourning Portrait), which I must confess I’m somewhat ambivalent about.  Horror movies, as fun as they are, seem to be akin to roller coaster rides — they give us a vicarious thrill, a sense of death and danger even in complete safety.  Which is cool, if you need that sort of thing.

But lately, nobody I know needs that sort of thing.  Death is always near (just ask Brittany Murphy or Vic Chesnutt), and to be ‘playfully’ reminded of that fact seems a bit odd.  If you need to be playfully reminded of death, you may not be fully alive — especially in this delicate day and age.  I have a feeling people involved in workplace shootings and violent car-jackings aren’t renting Drag Me To Hell lately.

For people who have active imaginations, like I do, horror movies can be pretty rough.  We tend to see things that aren’t there.  When I’m in the shower with a head full of suds, sometimes its all I can do not to open my eyes to catch the long-haired girl from The Grudge standing there staring at me. Do you know what I mean?  Is this fun, or truly unpleasant?

I recently read Stephen King’s Everything’s Eventual, and the story The Road Virus Heads North is just awful.  Maybe in a good way, sure, but it still hasn’t left my head.  Is that a good thing or a bad thing?  (On the other hand, King’s terrifying and oddly ageless story The Man in the Black Suit is scary and enhancing in all the right ways.)

I like a good scare myself, but in the end, I don’t go see too many horror movies.  The fact that most of them are poorly made is only part of the reason.  The other part is that I don’t need to be reminded that death is always around the corner.  I see it on the news.  I see it in our city streets.  And of course, I’m delighted to be lucky enough to make a good horror movie, and you can be damn sure that I’ll do my best to make it as memorable as possible.  At the same time, though, I’ll try to make it as meaningful as possible — to give the audience something to take home besides a simple thrill ride.

There’s been lots of talk about how the horror moves of the 70’s —  The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Dawn of the Dead, The Omen — are a sort of response to Vietnam and Watergate and so on.  That may be true, but I doubt many Vietnam vets are cheering to zombies being blown away.  They don’t need that vicarious thrill — they lived it.  And are most likely trying to forget it.

What I do know is that, as I get older, I’m more interested in meaning, and less in vicarious thrills.  I want to enrich, not to deplete. Life is delicate, not cheap.

But maybe that’s just me.

Social Networks, I Apologize

Much like David Letterman being repentant this week, with Sarah Palin accusing him of being a comedian, I must admit I was wrong about Twitter and, uh … okay, Facebook, too.

First of all, I wrote a post a couple weeks ago about the two popular social networks and their supposed lack of real content. It seemed to be all very narcissistic ‘all about me’ kinda things, and I maintain it still really is, to some extent. I saved particular venom for Twitter, with its limited character count and extremely terse form of communication.

But that was before the revolution in Iran. Wow. Twitter seems to have played a major role in people communicating with each other even though the traditional lines of communication were shut down. I’ve heard that Facebook played a role as well.

When entire countries have revolutions enabled by certain technology, it’s probably a good thing to appreciate that technology. So I will. I’ve since joined Facebook as an experiment recently, and found it kinda … fun.

Okay, enough groveling.

Language is a Virus

awesome

The word ‘awesome’ is getting some heat lately. I’ve read many times recently how the word is overused, or seldom used in its correct form … which is primarily to communicate something both fearful and wondrous, such as a massive lighting storm, or the Titanic going down.

But it has been used more recently to denote ‘good’ or ‘cool.’ You’ll hear it in common speech a lot, particularly from kids and good old George W. Bush. Now, it seems the language gatekeepers are complaining about it, and want it to be employed only in its ‘correct’ form.

You’ll find such rants here, here and here.

Dictionary.com defines the word thusly:

Awesome — adjective
1. inspiring awe: an awesome sight.
2. showing or characterized by awe.
3. Slang. very impressive: That new white convertible is totally awesome.

The third definition is very important: Slang.

One thing the word and language gatekeepers fail to understand is that language is a living thing. It’s always changing, always growing and evolving. Semiotics is a fascinating world of study, and it proves that language is never just one thing; it is many things to many people — in fact, it has an almost infinite amount of variety and meaning and use. To say a word is used incorrectly is to misunderstand the true function of language itself.

Most of us adhere to the social contract that the word ‘red’ denotes a certain color that falls in a certain place on the color spectrum. Simple, right? But that’s only because we all say that’s what it is. ‘Red’ of course can mean lots of things — embarrassed, angry, in debt, violent, whatever.

It can also be a code word, something which gets to the heart of language usage, which is to say that words are signifiers for groups — she who gets the usage of a term is in, he who does not get the usage is out.

Thus, to say any word is used incorrectly — that’s bunk. Language is a tool, not an end in an of itself. A word means whatever you want it to mean. If your eggs are ‘awesome,’ that’s perfectly valid. If the new playground at your school is ‘awesome,’ that’s great. If your shoes you just got are ‘awesome,’ go with it.

And don’t let the language snobs tell you or anyone else what is ‘correct.’ There is no correct in language; there is only the way YOU use it.

Willam S. Burroughs was right: Language is a virus.

Neutral

VIRGINSpc2Neutral is the debut feature film (and it is indeed a film) from Asheville-based filmmaker Joe Chang. Gorgeously captured on old-school 16mm by the brilliant Greg Hudgins, Neutral is sort of like Asheville’s Slacker, but it’s sweeter, more whimsical, and reveals a sensibility all its own.

Chang is definitely a comer; he seems to have things going on his head that no one else does, that’s for sure. As a fellow filmmaker who’s had to sacrifice for storytelling, I most admire Joe’s drive and his courage for taking chances and not backing down from making films that aspire to be real art. He’s scary good. And, yes, the movie does feature the acting debut of yours truly, a walk-on cameo in a film that features over 70 small parts.

Neutral recently had its DVD release party (which I attended), and Joe showed clips from his film, and several bands played. Joe’s amazing band Single Engine Airplane was there, Jason Smith’s inimitable Night’s Bright Colors — see the post about them below — and a dynamic young combo called Kovacs and the Polar Bear, which reminds me of a young Wilco, blew everybody away. No hyperbole here; they fucking killed — look them up on Myspace, they’re terrific and have a great future ahead of them.

Joe showed some clips from an upcoming project called Days of War, Nights of Love. On his own website, he describes it thusly:

Days of War, Nights of Love is the working title of
Joe’s second feature, which he is currently writing.
It’s a surreal magical dreamy circus western
knight’s tale adventure vaudevillian story taking
place in it’s own little world with swords and
crossbows, horses and ostriches, kings and queens,
lotus flower children and traveling gypsies, tricked
out bounty hunters and crappy headphones, air balloons
and dentist chairs, instrument trees and rear
projections, jug bands and men with microphone faces,
and much more….

Joe Change, everybody … Check him out at his production company, Papercookie.net.